Canada – Not as Civil as You Might Think
The past seven days were supposed to be a good week for Canada. Last Monday, Justin Trudeau went to Washington and delivered exactly what almost every Canadian was hoping for: an acknowledgment from President Trump that the U.S.-Canadian trade relationship was valuable and only needs to be “tweaked”, at least compared to the full re-set he seeks to negotiate with Mexico. And somehow, Trudeau managed to thread a very fine needle between affirming his government’s support for immigration, trade, and gender equality, while preserving at least a professional tone in his relationship with the irascible President.
Later in the week, Trudeau impressed European leaders gathered in Germany when he passionately advocated for a global economy that more equally distributes wealth between and within countries. Much of the international press, enamoured with the dashing Prime Minister, held Trudeau and Canada as an example of liberal, tolerant values during this turbulent time in human history. Even for Trudeau’s detractors back home (and he is accumulating a growing subset of critics, from both the left and right), this was supposed to be a celebration of how Canadians still handle their differences civilly, unlike their polarized cousins south of the border.
Reality is always more complicated than a cohesive storyline, and has a funny way of appearing at the most inconvenient times.
By the end of last week, Canada was enmeshed in not one but two distinct debates on how to manage a growing tide of political hate speech. On Tuesday (Valentine’s Day, no less), the Edmonton Journal reported that more security threats were levelled at current Alberta Premier Rachel Notley than any previous leader in provincial history. In 2015, Notley was the target of 18 serious security threats; the previous high for a single year over the past 12 years was seven (and Notley only took power in May of that year). In 2016, the provincial police began tracking social media threats, and logged 412 incidents targeting the premier, including 26 that were deemed serious enough to warrant police action. In one high-profile incident, a December rally against the new government’s carbon price policy devolved into chants of “Lock her up”. One current candidate in the federal Conservative Party leadership race, Chris Alexander, was speaking during the rally, and did nothing to try stopping these chants.
Lest there be any uncertainty about whether Notley is a unique target, other high-profile female politicians in Alberta are also beginning to speak out against death threats and derogatory messages they receive on a near-daily basis. Sandra Jensen, a legislator who recently switched parties after experiencing harassment while running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party, shocked the province when she took the floor in the General Assembly last fall to read a small sample of the disgusting slurs and death threats she has received from members of the public.
While Albertans began to reconcile with a disturbing spike in sexist political speech last week, the whole country has been waking up to a reality that was already all-too-familiar to Muslim Canadians: a rise in Islamophobia north of the border. Following the shooting that killed six members of a Quebec City mosque in January, a group of protesters tried to block worshippers from entering Toronto’s Masjid Mosque last Friday, calling for a ban to Islam. These events follow months of racist incidents at Canadian universities, including anti-Islam posters at the University of Calgary, anti-Sikh posters at the University of Alberta, and anti-Muslim/LGBT/Communist posters at McGill University.
Motion 103 and Its Backlash
Last week, this rise in decidedly un-civil discourse reached a flashpoint over Motion 103 (or M-103 in shorthand), a “private member’s bill” introduced by a member of Trudeau’s Liberal Party, Iqra Khalid. The motion calls for government to “condemn Islamophobia”, as well as “all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination”, and calls for a government committee to study this issue and make recommendations on how to counter it. Here is the full text of the motion:
That, in the opinion of the House, the government should:
(a) recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear;
(b) condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination and take note of House of Commons’ petition e-411 and the issues raised by it;
and (c) request that the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage undertake a study on how the government could
(i) develop a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia, in Canada, while ensuring a community-centered focus with a holistic response through evidence-based policy-making,
(ii) collect data to contextualize hate crime reports and to conduct needs assessments for impacted communities, and that the Committee should present its findings and recommendations to the House no later than 240 calendar days from the adoption of this motion, provided that in its report, the Committee should make recommendations that the government may use to better reflect the enshrined rights and freedoms in the Constitution Acts, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
Despite many seemingly sensible statements about following “evidence-based policy-making” and “reflecting the enshrined rights and freedoms” of the Constitution, this motion seems to have elicited a rash of visceral opposition, including claims that M103 would limit free speech, singles out Islam for “special treatment”, and even that it is a step on a slippery slope towards implementing sharia law in Canada.
To be clear, M103 will not infringe on rights to free speech; it is a non-binding motion, as opposed to a legislative bill, and will not supersede rights already guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It’s also perplexing to read this motion and believe that it will enable sharia law, unless what concerns you about sharia law has something to do with “evidence-based policy-making” or the “enshrined rights and freedoms” in the Canadian Constitution.
Perhaps the most credible opposition to M103 are those who question why it needs to specifically reference “Islamophobia”, or single out Muslims, when all religions face discrimination. The Conservative Party seeks to replace this motion with another that is similarly worded, but replaces references to Islamophobia with the condemnation of “all forms of systemic racism, religious intolerance, and discrimination…”.
Yet this position doesn’t hold water either. Even back in 2014, Statistics Canada indicated that while Muslims comprise just 3 percent of the country’s population, they were the targets of 23 percent of religiously-motivated hate crimes. Moreover, while hate crimes in general decreased since 2012, those against Muslims specifically spiked by 50 percent over that time.
Yes, all religions face some degree of discrimination, and that is lamentable. But Muslims in particular face a disproportionately high rate of discrimination, and there are specific factors contributing to this that absolutely justify singling out “Islamophobia” as a particular problem in Canadian society. The Muslim community is not asking for special privileges through this motion; they have already been singled out by those who are harming them. Have we already forgotten that just three weeks ago, Canada experienced one of its worst terrorist attacks on home soil – specifically directed towards the Muslim community in Quebec City? Do we not want to understand why this happened?
Similarly, it wouldn’t make sense to address the threats and derogatory comments targeting female politicians by condemning all uncivil statements aimed at both male and female politicians. Again, politicians of all genders receive threats and revolting comments – but there are specific dynamics that must be understood as to why female politicians such as Rachel Notley tend to receive more of these than their male counterparts.
For these reasons, I whole-heartedly support M103. If nothing else, its passage would hopefully reassure Canadian Muslims that their government is concerned about their safety and taking steps to help them feel more secure, while raising this issue with other Canadians who may not be aware of how deep this problem runs.
A Resilience Approach to Hate Speech
And yet, I also worry that M103 may ultimately prove ineffective in countering Islamophobia. In systems jargon, it seems to take an “optimizing” approach to political hate: identify something that we don’t like (Islamophobia), and seek to minimize or eliminate it by condemning its existence. Condemning hate speech as way to reduce its existence would rely on one of two paths for reducing discrimination: (1) those who perpetrate acts of discrimination realize the error of their ways and self-correct, or (2) they realize their beliefs are in the extreme minority and retreat into the woodwork.
This approach might have worked to some degree in previous decades, when most people across the political spectrum obtained their news from mainstream media. As political leaders and institutions condemned racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of discrimination, it became difficult for those who held these beliefs to find people with similar beliefs who could validate their worldview (i.e., the transaction costs for finding similar, openly racist views was high).
In a social media age, however, the practice of “condemnation” seems to be ineffective at best, and perhaps even counter-productive. While we don’t know exactly what the committee in this motion would ultimately recommend, we’ve seen a similar path play out in the States. We discover that a larger-than-expected subset of citizens hold views deemed outside the mainstream, and eventually find blogs and message boards with tailor-made stories that validate their worldview. Moreover, these movement-oriented online communities often encourage their members to act on these beliefs in some political way, because of a perceived crisis brought on by political correctness and spineless political elites who are complicit in creating this problem. This creates the space for an unconventional politician to focus this hate into a concrete political agenda. By now, members of this group are effectively divorced from many of the levers that could be used to counter their beliefs: they don’t read the newspapers that condemn discrimination; they don’t believe the politicians that speak out against it; and they don’t trust courts, universities, and other institutions to act on behalf of the public good.
Indeed, there are clear signs that this process is now winding its way through Canada. It’s no coincidence that fierce opposition to M103 has galvanized in the middle of a Conservative Party leadership race (while the party supported a similar motion last October). Multiple candidates, most notably Kellie Leitch, have flirted with Trump-style anti-immigrant politics. More significantly, they are backed by an upstart online media company known as The Rebel, which is quickly making itself into the Breitbart of Canada (The Rebel also organized the anti-Notley protests in December that led to the “Lock her up” chants).
Interestingly, the founder of The Rebel, Ezra Levant, started his career in print media as a right-wing commentator, before the publications he wrote for either went bankrupt or cut him. He was then an on-air personality for the short-lived Sun News Network, which styled itself as the Fox News of Canada before shutting down in 2015. It was at that point that Levant formed his online media company, and in the process seems to have acquired more influence than any of his previous mediums afforded him.
So in a society where anyone who is “condemned” as Islamophobic can find refuge in communities such as The Rebel, and where even an anodyne motion to investigate the sources of Islamophobia is portrayed as the advance of sharia law, how can we have productive discussions that effectively reduce prejudice and political hate?
One intriguing approach might be found in resilience theory. Briefly, this principle, originating from biology and evolutionary science, acknowledges that there will be sub-optimal aspects in a particular system; no complex system can be made perfect. The key is to develop mechanisms that allow the larger system to survive, even in the face of deficiencies – think about how the immune system preserves the body in the face of a virus, or how a forest regenerates itself after a forest fire.
In this case, the challenge for Canadian society is to find a way to keep talking to each other and not devolve into the deep polarization that has marked U.S. politics, even while working through the prejudices that many Canadians may have. One intriguing initiative in this regard is the SOMEONE Project, at Montreal’s Concordia University. This project seeks to counter online hate speech not by trying to condemn it to oblivion, but by creating safe, creative spaces for both victims and would-be perpetrators of hate speech to explore their complex identities, values, and how they might affect others.
There are likely other tools or ideas that could effectively promote greater empathy and social cohesion, while acknowledging that prejudices will continue to exist for the foreseeable future. I’d be eager to learn more about these and other thoughts on this subject in the comments below.